Owen Ogletree and Paul Eckloff have visited all five of the remaining Belgian Trappist monasteries that still brew their own ales. This is the story of one of them.
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Responsible for introducing Trappist beer to the world, the brewery of Chimay is well known for producing some of the very best and most complex ales available. The Notre-Dame de Scourmont abbey that produces Chimay is around a two hour drive south from Brussels near the French border in the province of Hainaut. As with all of the Trappist breweries, admittance to the areas in which the monks live and brew beer is restricted.
Chimay ales have been produced since 1862, and the monastery uses the proceeds from sales of their beer to fund their church. Brewmaster Father Theodore isolated the remarkable yeast used to produce Chimay back in the1940's, but rumors abound that the yeast strains have been recently altered to remove some of the earthy flavor components from these beers. Fans of the older versions of Chimay claim that this has made these later beers less complex and enjoyable. The wells located under the abbey offer a soft, slightly acidic brewing water. These beers are fruity in aroma and taste with warming alcohol being a definite flavor component. Much to the dismay of many beer aficionados, all the beers of Chimay have alcohol contents that prevent them from being sold in some southern states (including Georgia).
Much to our pleasure, all three of the Chimay beers and the pungent Chimay cheese (also produced by the monks) are available for sampling at the Ferme des 4 Saisons Taverne-Restaurant just down the street from the monastery. This bright and pleasant pub has a huge parking lot that we hear is often full during peak tourist seasons in the warmer months. Here we sampled each of the three Chimay beers along with sandwiches made with the wonderful Chimay cheese.
The beers can be purchased in either 12-ounce capped or 750 ml corked bottles. The white-labeled Chimay Cinq Cents is the most hopped and dry of the three. While it lacks the typical yeasty profile the brewery is famous for, we found it to be a crisp and pleasant beer to complement our lunch. It has an alcohol content slightly over six percent by volume and is somewhat tart.
The red-labeled Chimay Premiere has an alcohol content of seven percent. It is smooth with a spiciness that is thoroughly complex and enjoyable. Because it is the basic brewery beer, Chimay Red offers the best glimpse of the fresh ingredients utilized by the brewers and allows the drinker to experience the different components before aging mellows them.. The malt has a nutty character that goes well with the hints of pepper provided by the house yeast. Many persons say that the larger, corked bottles age better and have a deeper character.
Our favorite Chimay ale is most definitely the blue-labeled Chimay Grande Reserve with an alcohol content of 9 percent. This is the "classic" Chimay ale exhibiting an unbelievable depth of fruity, peppery character. The taste continues to evolve and develop with a few years of age. The corked bottles are always best aged on their sides so the corks will stay swollen and the beer will not lose carbonation. Michael Jackson even compares Grande Reserve with some fine Port wines.
A trip to the Chimay brewery is truly a religious experience. The monastery and surrounding forest and farmlands are among the most picturesque areas we experienced in all of Belgium. The melodies of the monastery bells calling the monks to afternoon prayers were only surpassed in beauty by the magnificent aroma coming from the brewery.
Owen Ogletree is an award-winning homebrewer, certified beer judge, and Director of Athens' (Ga.) Classic City Brew-Fest coming up each spring.
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